ORLANDO, FL (Sept. 28, 2020) – Major League Baseball kicks off its month-long “Sweet Sixteen” Postseason Party tomorrow (Sept. 29). For the first time in league history, 16 teams will have a chance to be the last one standing when the dance music ends in late October and wear the crown of World Series Champions.
There are some names that we haven’t seen on the guest list in a while: like the Miami Marlins (whose last playoff appearance was in 2003), the San Diego Padres (2006), the Chicago White Sox (2008), and the Cincinnati Reds (2013).
And, for the first time, most of the games will be played at neutral sites. After the first round, the surviving teams will enter “bubbles” in California and Texas. The two American League Division Series will be played at San Diego’s Petco Park and Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium, with the two National League Division Series at Minute Maid Park in Houston and Globe Life Field in Arlington, TX. The “bubble” continues with the two League Championship Series at Petco Park and Globe Life Field, and finally the World Series at Globe Life.
This will be the first time an entire World Series has been played at one ballpark since the St. Louis Browns and the Cardinals played the 1944 Series in Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. And, the first time ever at a neutral site.
Some fans may consider all of this novelty intriguing. But, this party is no longer an A-list event; it’s lost too much luster. Of the four major professional sports leagues in North America, baseball used to be the toughest playoff to reach, a noteworthy achievement after a marathon season. But, by expanding to 16 teams, up from the 10 in previous years, MLB’s postseason now is like the three other sports leagues’ -- just another diluted moneymaker for the team owners and television networks.
Some would argue that baseball had to expand in order to keep fans -- and the players, in particular—engaged enough during the final month of this pandemic-truncated season so that MLB could push, pull, carry, or drag teams across the finish line to that holy grail: the playoffs’ billion dollar payout from television partners Fox Sports, Turner Sports, and ESPN.
Is 60 Still Better than None?
Perhaps that’s true. Yet many fans across the country have viewed the 2020 regular season with ambivalence. On one side, there’s a feeling that some baseball -- even if only 60 games -- is better than none, while on the other wondering if maybe we’d have been better off skipping the season entirely.
Perhaps it’s because the quality of play throughout the league hasn’t been that good, sabotaged by a cramped schedule, an interrupted and too-brief spring training, and a rushed “summer camp” to save the season. Or, maybe it’s the sight of all those empty seats in stadiums around the league. Whatever the reason, skepticism abounds.
A popular view among fans is that this season is one giant asterisk, a throw-away year, an opportunity for baseball to experiment – with seven-inning doubleheaders, with each half-inning in extra innings starting with a runner on second base (for the regular season only), relievers required to face a minimum of three batters, the Designated Hitter in the National League, games in neutral-site stadiums, and no fans allowed.
Put it all together, and the season has all the appeal of spring training games. The season felt like a series of exhibition games instead of a season. After all, critics say, with teams using cardboard cutout fans and piped-in noise in a futile attempt to create some type of atmosphere at stadiums, why take it seriously?
Still, Major League Baseball is to be applauded for making it this far. When the league set out on this journey in late July, after a four-month layoff because of the coronavirus, having any postseason at all was very much in doubt. Especially after two teams – the Marlins and the St. Louis Cardinals – each had at least 10 players test positive for COVID-19 less than two weeks into the season and needed to be quarantined, the Marlins for 8 days and the Cardinals for 17. (Ironically, both teams made the postseason.)
Well, indifference or not, the playoffs are upon us, like never before.
From the Initial 16
For the first time in MLB history, more than half of the teams (16 of 30) have qualified for the postseason. In each league, the three division winners receive the top three seeds, while the three second-place finishers are seeded 4-6, and the two wild-card teams seeded 7-8.
The first round features four three-game series in each league, with all games played at the home park of the higher-seeded club. The No. 1 seed plays No. 8, No. 2 vs. No. 7, No. 3 against No. 6, and No. 4 takes on No. 5.
The remainder of the playoffs will follow the standard format: each league’s two Division Series will be best-of-five games, while the two league Championship Series and the World Series all will be best-of-seven.
Why Both Sides Like It?
Why were the owners and the players association able to agree on this postseason expansion when they have seen eye to eye on little else? Simply put, money.
Under this format, baseball gets even more games for the TV networks, which eventually creates more value for team owners. More games to televise (and to sell advertising) means happier networks, and happier networks means even bigger paydays down the road for the owners.
Meanwhile, the players receive a $50 million bonus pool to be split among themselves. Under the previous system, the players’ take in the postseason was a percentage of the gate (with only a limited number of fans expected to be allowed to attend this year, and only for the two League Championship Series and the World Series, the players’ take from the gate would be minimal). Since players were only paid a pro-rated portion of their salaries for the 60-game regular season – receiving about 37 percent of their usual pay – that $50 million definitely had appeal.
Why It’s Good
There are a number of reasons to embrace the 2020 Postseason, though.
For one, the additional playoff teams hopefully will increase fan interest, and even allowed for some surprise contenders to make the field -- like the Marlins, for instance. Miami, arguably, has been one of the league’s worst teams for a decade or more; and it was predicted to be so again this season. Yet, here the Marlins are, having overcome that early season outbreak of the virus to make the playoff bubble.
Second, it eliminates the silly “play-in” game, in which the fourth- and fifth-seeded teams play for the right to take on the top-ranked club. In this game, a team’s entire 162-game season can come down to one fluke play, or one blown call.
Third, proponents contend, increasing the playoff field seems fair in a year in which teams played an unbalanced schedule with opponents exclusively from geographically similar divisions (NL East teams played only clubs in their own division and the AL East, for instance), yet fought for the same playoff spots.
Finally, there’s the argument that it was needed in this bizarre, compressed-schedule season as an incentive for teams that started slowly to continue competing, and to avoid tanking. The short season magnified winning, and losing, streaks. For instance, the New York Yankees got off to a relatively slow start, but pretty much assured their spot in the playoffs with a 10-game win streak in mid-September. In this year’s condensed schedule that’s the equivalent of a winning 27 straight in a 162-game season.
Why It’s Bad
The downside is that the expansion dilutes the regular season and the postseason. No longer is the team that wins its division and has the league’s best record rewarded with a free pass into the second round (the Division Series). Now, all three of the division winners must play a best-of-three, first-round series. The only incentive to win a division now is that all three games are played at home – and that’s minimized with no fans in attendance.
It used to be that a team had to win something – a league championship or a division title – in order to reach the playoffs. Now with more than half the teams qualifying, a winning record isn’t even required. According to research by ESPN, 2012 is the only full-length season in the last 10 in which eight teams in each league posted a .500 record or better. And, per the Elias Sports Bureau, if the 16-team format had been in place when baseball added the Central Division to each league in 1995, 46 teams with a .500 or worse record would have made the playoffs in those 25 seasons.
In fact, the Milwaukee Brewers and Houston Astros both made the field this season with 29-31 records. That hardly screams best of the best. MLB has joined the other three major professional leagues with watered-down postseason formats (16 of the 30 NBA teams qualify, 16 of the 31 NHL clubs advance, and 14 of the 32 NFL franchises make the postseason).
And, then there is the old “on any given day” randomness in sports that becomes even more pronounced in an expanded postseason. A No. 8 seed on a roll or with strong pitching could knock off the top team. Imagine the 29-31 Brewers beating the 43-17 Los Angeles Dodgers.
That randomness also might impact how teams put together their rosters. Does a club construct a squad to win as many games as possible, or does it build one simply to reach the playoffs and then take its chances in a short series? Will the three-game, first-round crapshoot make teams more or less willing to spend big bucks on free agents when an 85-win season gets clubs into the playoffs just as easily as 100 victories?
Baseball’s Grade Inflation
Major League Baseball’s postseason has become education’s grade inflation.
In 1960 there were only 16 teams total in the major leagues. Today that many are in the playoffs. From the start of the 20th century through 1968, only two teams reached each postseason, and they played in the World Series. From 1969 through 1994, two teams in each league (four total) qualified for the postseason, which consisted of the leagues’ Championship Series and the World Series. When MLB added a third division to each league in 1995, a wild-card team was introduced, so that four teams in each league made the postseason. That eight-team format continued until 2012, when the dreaded “play-in” game was adopted. With 10 teams in the postseason, it meant that one-third of the league qualified for the playoffs. Now, it’s up to 53 percent (16 of 30)
Gift That Keeps on Giving
Although the 16-team playoffs are supposed to be for this season only, per the agreement between owners and players, there are indications it may be extended.
Despite at least three national polls of baseball fans showing that more than 70 percent of respondents are against making a 16-team postseason permanent, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has indicated that a majority of owners are solidly in favor, as is he. “Hopefully, it will become a permanent part of our landscape,” Manfred told a gathering at Hofstra University recently.
That’s not surprising, given the extra money it would put in owners’ pockets. At some point, fans will be back in the stands, and baseball owners love few things more than increasing revenue. Baseball’s gift to itself keeps on giving.
Under the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the players’ union would have to consent to such an arrangement. That’s not considered a huge obstacle. The league most likely would wave a golden carrot – perhaps more playoff money for players – as an inducement. Never underestimate the allure of money.
So, when the World Series ends next month, could a No. 8 seed be the World Champions? In a year as bizarre as 2020, anything’s possible. In 2006 the Cardinals, who finished the regular season with an 83-78 record, won the World Series. In 1973, the New York Mets finished the regular season 82-79 yet wound up as World Champions, achieving the dubious distinction of being the champions with the fewest wins in a full season.
This year’s winner is assured of having far fewer victories. Will that spoil baseball’s coronation or will the champion still be the Belle of the Ball?
Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.
Photo credit: Tyler Nix/Unsplash.com